Ode to regret

The room is the same. Nothing has changed since he’s been away. Marta has kept it polished and just as David, her white employer, had liked it, the way he left it 17 years before, when he moved to England with his white wife and left the Karoo. But now that David’s funeral has ended, the words are just starting to come out between the two women who loved the same troubled poet.

Playing though May 25 at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, Athol Fugard’s Sorrows and Rejoicings echoes aspects of the background of the playwright born and raised in the Karoo region of South Africa to English and Afrikaner parents. Fugard’s work is typically saturated in the politics of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, such as his internationally lauded Master Harold ... and the Boys (1982), which “demonstrates the power of apartheid to corrupt,” and his 1961 hit, Blood Knot, which, like Sorrows (2001), employs characters as representatives of their race, place and time. However, unlike Master Harold and Blood Knot, Sorrows is a disappointment, magnified by Fugard’s significant playwrighting past and further weakened by performance choices.

Marta (Sandra Love Aldridge) and Allison (Barbara Coven) enter the room together, with Rebecca (Casaundra Freeman) — Marta’s teenage daughter — silently pouting in the doorway for most of the play. They talk about the funeral and David, but not until Marta verbally reveals that Rebecca is David’s daughter do we realize there’s possible animosity between the women. This is due to Aldridge’s and Coven’s matter-of-fact body language with no undercurrent of resentment and no seething subtext to help us out. They — along with director Barbara Busby — seem to have fallen victim to the weaknesses in the written word, mirroring its textual “don’ts” with thespian equivalents.

The play is a static nightmare — its dynamics completely dependent upon dialogue that leaves nothing to the imagination — structured on a series of expository monologues rooted in memory. In layman’s terms, it’s all tell and no show. What does get established is a sense of distance and isolation due to the rarity of direct interchange between the characters — and a sense of the active present being shut out by the ghost of the past.

Ironically, the only time the stage ever feels alive is when the dead man appears. As David, Loren Bass is the only one who seems to be experiencing life, able to move and react around static women who aren’t sure whether they should react or not to his memory. Bass is vital, latching onto each sentence with an artist’s love, as if the words are all he has, and they are. Aside from a couple of emotional outbursts allowed to Rebecca late in the play, David — a poet, like his hero Ovid, exiled from the land he loved and dead before the play begins — ends up being our only connection to the soul.

Sorrows and Rejoicings’ failings are not from a lack of good and lofty intentions. Each character has important shoes to fill as an archetypical figure in the now-post-apartheid society. Marta is the subservient native feeling the effects of having been impregnated by David, the white colonizer in love with the wild lure of the Karoo land and people, but unable to truly marry and integrate what he loves. He therefore turned to the politically acceptable lover of civilization, Allison, a white woman terrified of losing her man to the seduction of the primitive, something she can’t understand. And Rebecca, the angry teenager, is the unacceptable product, the future and only hope left for post-apartheid Africa.

It looks good on paper, but watching it on stage, with characters barely speaking to each other, keeping to themselves in separate areas of a ghostly room, one feels more and more separated from the play itself, eventually losing interest in its dramatically dead memories and wanting to get out and live life, which I guess is a good thing.

Sorrows and Rejoicings exhibits signs of an important and admirable career caught up in looping memories and winding down. Perhaps it’s really the voice of Fugard when David reads and identifies with Ovid’s ode to his dead talent. Sorrows lives in a single, sorry room and plays onstage like the dry and dying recitation of an unrequited love letter, an unfinished poem, an impotent apartheid apology.


Sorrows and Rejoicings by Athol Fugard is at the Detroit Repertory Theatre (13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit) through May 25. Call 313-868-1347 or visit www.detroitreptheatre.com.

Anita Schmaltz writes about theater and performance for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]